Scoot: Why is healthy food for school kids a political issue?
Any plan to require that school lunches be healthier for students should be a bipartisan plan, one that has only the best interest of the young students as its motivation.
However, First Lady Michelle Obama’s effort to make school lunches healthier has turned ugly, and demonstrated that even attempts to help children in America can easily evolve into a political game.
Last Thursday, a House committee voted for a Republican-backed measure that would allow schools to opt out of the standards passed in 2010 to reduce sodium and increase whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables for school lunches.
The initiatives of First Ladies of the United States often become political pawns in the hands of the opposing parties; Michelle Obama has been a piñata for the Republican Party.
Ms. Obama has publically denounced the House committee’s vote allowing schools to opt out of the new healthier standards for school lunches by saying the vote amounts to the embracing of junk food. The reports from school districts on reaction to the new standards for healthier school lunches are mixed, but the reports about the rejection of the healthier food items and Ms. Obama’s plan seems to be getting more attention than the success stories.
In a school district in New Mexico, families condemned the whole-wheat tortillas. In Georgia, there was resistance to removing fried chicken from the school lunch menu. Flaky white country biscuits were replaced with whole-grain biscuits - that was rejected by students in Tennessee. In Arkansas, a school district reports that students piled the containers of applesauce into the cafeteria garbage cans. School districts that criticized the initiative to make school lunches healthier all reported that many of the healthy food items – like fruit and vegetables – suffered the same fate.
The plan to make school lunches healthier, supported in full by the White House, has turned into a battle between Republicans and Democrats, urban and rural school districts, and big food companies and health advocates. We should never be surprised that politicians turn a simple idea into political warfare.
Large companies that sell millions and millions of dollars worth of food considered less healthy to the schools – like frozen pizza and French fries – support the plan that allows schools to opt out of the healthier plan. And the strong lobbying group – School Nutrition Association – is fighting for the healthier plan. Rejection of the plan to provide healthier choices is being used by those who want to attack and reject anything President Obama or the First Lady touch. And that political side is supported by the big companies that sell less healthy food to the schools. The idea that the healthier choices end up in the garbage can creates a strong visual of taxpayers’ dollars being wasted.
The other argument is that if students have only healthier options – then they will eventually adapt. Some school districts have seen a change in attitudes from the moment the healthier plans were introduced, and say that while young students may have rejected the healthier choices at first, they ultimately accepted and appreciated the new healthier choices.
Presenting healthier school lunches for students that will reject the healthier choices could be a symptom of poor eating habits at home. If students are not taught by parents to eat properly, then providing healthier school lunches is not going to change their poor eating habits.
I’ve made the same argument with prayer in schools. A school-led prayer at the beginning of a school day is not going to change a young student who is not getting any prayers or religious education at home. If only it were as simple as requiring a prayer at the beginning of each school day to turn bad kids into good kids!
I understand both sides of this debate. The government cannot force students to be healthy. Being healthy overall is a virtue taught and supported at home. But since there are school districts where students initially rejected the healthier choices and then accepted them – then there is wisdom in the idea of not giving young students the less healthy choices.
Most children will select candy or something sweet over fruits and vegetables – but if fruits and vegetables are the only option – would students eventually eat what is available?
Children cannot be given too many choices and need guidelines from parents. Send a child into a grocery store to pick out what they want to eat and I doubt their free will would yield many healthy choices in the grocery basket.
Americans should not look to the government to raise children – whether instilling religion with a school-led prayer or forcing healthier food items during school lunches.
The growing presence of the “nanny state” mentality is the direct result of the loss of personal accountability in America. If we are not responsible for our behavior and decisions, and expect the government to be responsible for us and our children – then we are further cracking the foundation this nation was built upon, and we edge ever closer to government control over individuals.
I think back on the school lunches I had at East Jefferson High School, and I’m not sure anyone really gave much thought to the nutritional value of what we were eating – but that was a different time when choices were not treated as constitutional rights. I remember red beans & rice on Mondays, shepherd’s pie, meatloaf, green beans and a square of a sweet peanut butter treat that probably would not meet nutritional standards today!
But America didn’t depend on the schools to make us healthy – that was the responsibility of parents.
I support giving students healthier school lunch choices with the understanding that students will not always choose what is best for them. But if the less healthy options are no longer available – then they could adapt to what is.
However, I also understand that good eating habits come from the home – not the school.
Do you remember your school lunches?
Photo via anotherlunch.com, Flickr